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  • The Rhetoric of Philosophical Politics in Plato's Seventh Letter
  • V. Bradley Lewis

The name Syracuse has come to stand as an emblem of the problematic relationship between philosophy and politics. While the sources1 differ on specifics, we can be confident that Plato visited there at least three times between 387 and 362 B.C. On his first trip, during the reign of Dionysius I, he became acquainted with Dion, the tyrant's brother-in-law. When the elder Dionysius died, Dion, a devotee of philosophy, apparently contrived for the old man's son, namesake, and successor to invite Plato back, believing that the young tyrant could be philosophically educated and convinced to lay down tyranny in favor of a new regime based on the rule of law. The plan was defeated, however, by a combination of Dionysius's dissolute life and opposition by Dion's enemies at court. Dion was exiled, and Plato returned to the Academy. Dion implored Plato to return to Syracuse on the basis of reports of Dionysius II's renewed resolution to take up philosophy and by the tyrant himself (who seems to have made some thinly veiled threats against the still-exiled Dion). Plato's second visit to Dionysius was no more successful than the first, however, and he considered himself fortunate to have escaped with his life. After a meeting at which Plato recounted the events of his final trip, Dion marshaled an expeditionary force, which included volunteers from the Academy, and set out to expel Dionysius II by violence. The effort succeeded, but the new regime was itself riven by faction, and Dion was assassinated in 353.2

The principal legacy of this ill-starred episode is contained in the letters that have come down to us under the name of Plato, particularly those numbered seven and eight. Scholarly discussion of Plato's Seventh Letter has usually focused on three questions: the doctrinal content of the letter and its relationship to the doctrinal content of the dialogues; the character of the letter as an apologia for Plato's Syracusan activities; and the general authenticity of the letter. While the second of these questions focuses correctly [End Page 23] on the rhetorical character of the letter, it ignores the most obvious aspect, namely, the letter's explicit addressees: the friends and comrades of Dion, and their request for political advice. If we take this rhetorical element with sufficient seriousness, we will see that the content of the letter is fully consistent with the teachings of the political dialogues, a point that tells in favor of the authenticity of the letter. Specifically, a focus on the rhetorical character of the letter reveals that its content is determined mostly by what emerges as an effort by Plato to influence his correspondents by moderating their understandable desire for vengeance and thus to forestall further bloodshed and disorder in Syracuse. What is most important about the letter, then, is not so much its account of Plato's actions in Syracuse, but its unveiling of his intentions with respect to Dion's followers. It is not the philosophical-political blueprint, sketched vaguely in the Seventh Letter, that is most important,3 but the concrete effort to mitigate the passions of his correspondents. Read in this light, the letter becomes even more important, since it contradicts the popular image of Plato as a proponent of dangerous political utopianism and portrays a more subtle relationship between philosophy and politics.

1. Dion's intentions, Plato's apology

To the extent that the rhetoric of the letter has been treated, commentators have usually focused on Plato's (or whoever the author) defense of his own actions in Sicily.4 While there is certainly warrant for this approach, the most important fact about the letter concerns its intended audience, the "relatives and comrades of Dion."5 As Plato explains in the opening of the letter, these are the men who have sought not only his advice, but his cooperation in completing the political project halted by Dion's death at the hands of several of his other purported "allies."

The most striking feature of the rhetorical structure is that, while the letter...


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